Efficiency used to be my best friend. That is, if a best friend is someone who presses you to always do what pleases them, obligates you to check off boxes and perform an ever-growing list of tasks for them, someone who never appreciates your time (although they take up all of your time) and yet they never think you're giving them enough of your time. An unsettled and discontent friend, through and through.
Yeah, some best friend. Sheesh.
Perhaps you're the same way.
Efficiency isn't a bad friend to have, but it sure makes for a crappy dictator.
Given too much power, it becomes a tyrant. Doing the most in minimal time can mean more tasks completed, but I began to realize throughout this year, that no matter how many planned tasks I completed in minimal time, I wasn't achieving higher and higher life satisfaction. In fact, this lifestyle often had the inverse effect. There was always even more to do, and more discontentment and isolation that came with it. I was just never getting enough done to make myself feel happy. Not only that, but the time I had for people always seemed to take more and more of a back seat; relationships aren't accomplishments. So why not call my mom tomorrow instead of today? Why not allocate just an hour for a lunch with a friend instead of leaving a whole afternoon open? In this system, very little time was left over for investing in relationships. I found myself forcing social time into small, square, pre-determined time slots. In my mind, everything was in my perfect, (albeit heavily-planned) control.
But, here was the problem: there was no room to let too much time get away from me, but there was also no possibility of adventure or spontaneity. Relationships don't thrive within the bounds of control and predictability.
Now being a planner by nature isn't a sin in of itself. It helps me to study hard and meet my goals. It will continue to do so. But the more I began to elevate the value of efficiency in my teenage years, the more my lifestyle began to warp. It wasn't that I didn't notice this trend. I pardoned it. This didn't mean there wasn't a price I paid, I just chose not to look at the price. Eventually, I chose to see the cost: because of my craving for efficiency, it left no time to be present, and both availability and stillness felt like failing – felt like a sin. But finally, I wanted out of that painful lifestyle. I was done pressing into the dictatorship of efficiency, and the numbing reassurances I distracted myself with, between my shortcomings.
I realized that I had once believed living by a perfect schedule meant no wasted time. What it really meant was wasting away, watching every tick and tock pass me by with burning eyes.
It's funny, how when we are the perpetrators of our own prisons, we fail to perceive them as prisons at all. But just because we locked the cell door behind us doesn't mean we're free.
There was something about scheduling my entire life that wasn't working. I dare to say it was unnatural. In fact, it was pretty sucky and lonely 90% of the time. Living with a measuring stick was hopeless. So I got to thinking. And something immeasurable came to mind.
For as long as I can remember, my parents have had almost perfect availability to me. That doesn't mean they never worked or left the house. What it means is that were always within reach, even via phone call, if I do need something – and if they were busy, I knew they'd call back whenever they could. Not in a scramble, but with genuine interest and care. All my childhood, my dad would come and work from home in his office at night in case we needed anything. Oftentimes we didn't need anything, but if I needed to talk after a bad day or if I needed advice, or even if I wanted to share a new idea for a story I was writing, I could open my dad's office door. I knew from the confidence of consistent experience that he'd turn towards me and engage with my need right in that moment. There was no "in a few minutes" or "I only have 20 minutes", or "can we talk tomorrow?" He was present right there, right then. Even if I interrupted him in the middle of a task.
I found an unexpected link -- love works like that. Love doesn't ask others to conform to one's own plan, or the expected schedule one hoped to stay on course with; love works around the needs and plans of others as they arise. It is ready to be present, instead of efficient. Love isn't a transaction of even giving and taking, kept on a scoreboard. After all, who has children or a spouse with the goal of making their life easier? Relationships don't exist for efficiency – perhaps coworkers and companies are, but not real relationships, and certainly not romantic partners or the family unit.
The heart needs nourishment more sporadically than the stomach or the mind do, and part of relational security is the knowledge that loved ones will be there for celebration or comfort at even the most unexpected of times.
Returning to the inefficient lifestyle of love my parents lived as they raised me: what did this mean for my parents? Well it certainly didn't mean maximizing a perfected schedule. Their tasks were delayed by minutes, hours, maybe even for a whole day sometimes when I needed extra support or wanted to celebrate a breakthrough with someone I loved. However, their loss was my gain, which they never made me feel guilty for or indebted for. They wanted to love me. I felt a security in my relationship with my parents that gave me the courage to keep a tender heart, that gave me the confidence to explore school subjects, sports and a university that I didn't know, and gave me the inspiration to want to be a good and giving person to other people, even if it would be at the cost of my own time or money. 'Want' is the key word there, because I've spent very little of my life being any good at giving to others and living selflessly. Yes, I believed this stuff that they emulated, being present and selfless and not transactional, but I wasn't living it. So maybe I didn't fully believe in what they were living, just thought I did, since the belief wasn't spread through my whole heart:
agreeing with a concept is the stillborn substitute for emulating a concept.
I knew that there was something about receiving the love that felt nice enough. Actually being love was a whole other story. I had what my parents sacrificed in order to be there for me. I could be like this too, but only if I chose it. Was I willing to trade up? Was I willing to care more about being present and caring for my relationships (and people generally) than being on course to accomplish all of my tasks, big and little, above all else, and using others as chess pieces along the way?
I felt a push and a pull in this decision. Love is safe as a concept, but putting hands and feet and real names and situations on it turns love into a more terrifying task. Real love doesn't pick favorites and least favorites, it doesn't just sit still, or agree with prospective moral concepts, or give back only what has been received. On the other side, it's easy to do the right action but have hidden motives, and worst but easiest of all is to do something "loving" just so you can be told that you're loving and feel like a good person – but even this is just a roundabout way of being selfish. True, genuine, authentic Love – the verb of verbs – wants to give and give, not in order to receive more, nor to get praise for being "so good" and "so giving", but instead, love wants to expend the overflowing energy, love is a selfless kindness that genuinely seeks to better the lives of others and meet their needs. Not for the ovation. Nor for the occasion. But from an overflow. Was I willing to answer this call? I decided that, although some struggle and some failure would be inevitable, I would.
The first step in changing my heart and my lifestyle from efficiency to presence was acknowledging that, although I'd received authentic, selfless love, I wasn't giving it out.
I had wanted to focus on me, save my resources, grow what I had. I wanted to horde love and what others love gave me. This wasn't the way my parents lived, and though I got some of the things I wanted, deep in my heart I was still dissatisfied. I was restless. Like a well-watered tree that refused to flower and bear fruit. I'd been privileged enough to have parents who loved selflessly. Well, to those who are given much, much is expected. And I wasn't living up to the love I was lucky enough to witness. So finally I began to confront my thoughts and spend great lengths of time reading and thinking, learning why who I was might matter more than what I did, if I wanted to be content and purpose led. Finally, I got rid of social media, save for a sparing visit to Facebook, so I could invest in the people I see face to face instead of wasting time on comparisons and competition. Finally, I wanted to be present with others too -- and I was living it, even if only in small ways. I wanted to see what was the answer to the unmet craving in my heart – not just more saving up for myself, but giving myself away. Because intrinsically, efficiency is about self, about profit and return, and presence is about selflessness, about forgetting about debts and profits altogether.
What I have begun to find is this.
Efficiency is about where I can get me. Presence is about where we can go together. Sometimes that doesn't mean going far, but it always means going deep.
I won't go through all the trouble of defining all that I believe love is, and what one needs to strive to become in order to live out love. It suffices to say none of us can be quite good enough at love, though we all very much crave to experience love (at least on the receiving end, and perhaps we're all hoping to hear we are good at giving love but don't want to hear how we must improve at it, although we are quite anxious to critique the lovingness of those around us.) Love is not an action to be checked off. This is where the split takes root between efficiency and presence. You can chase one, not both – one will leave you scrambling for more time. The other will leave you perhaps less accomplished, but also freer. Love is not a task. It is not measurable or tangible, it is never fully earned or sufficiently served or satiated. As much as selflessness and fighting against one's own pride matter in the fight to love, the first step is to realize that relationships will never be resume accomplishments.
Relationships are unparalleled in their value. They are also more easy to miss and dismiss.
I am trying to become more present – it is like a tadpole trying to walk on the land. For whatever I gain in my lifestyle I must lose something else. All of life is a decision of trades. Where I lived and what I breathed before was like a pond: the waters of accomplishments and the celebrations of self still feel nice and safe to me due to its familiarity, and I see many of my peers enjoying the safety of the accomplishment-fixated, self-oriented waters they've always practiced, and that I have always practiced. However, I also see a discomfort in myself and in them, a cramped-ness of spirit that doesn't know where to go. The answer isn't a bigger pair of fins, but to grow legs. To do something different, not something more. It is an evolution.
I, just like you, am a creature meant for more than the simplest way of life, which is a selfish way of life I have allowed thus far. This is a life of self, of furthering my sense of self-worth through tasks and titles. There is a time to be a child and to focus on the self, but only a short time. I once did not possess a theory of mind; well, now I do. I once did not have the resources or the wisdom to understand forgiveness, loving my enemies, and canceling a fun plan to encourage a downtrodden friend; well, now I do. It was once difficult to sit up, then difficult to walk, now we must learn how to run and not grow weary. It is both my privilege and responsibility to answer this call beyond a life of self, evolving into a being greater than a cyclically self-serving, unsatisfied soul… but it is also in my power to decline this call. It is my choice to stretch these new legs beyond the pond of swimming in self-serving circles, into a world where the needs of others take precedence, and where I don't think less of myself, but rather think of myself less. The 'point' of my life is not to meet my own satisfaction. My desires aren't even fully rooted in self to begin with, though we try to satisfy them with self-serving antidotes. To experience love and thus strive to give love is satisfying in a way that transcends immediate gratification. To do right from a place of love, or even to try to, does something to the human spirit. It is harder than selfishness but also feels more right. Although we're not much good at being good, we want to be. But only because we have known goodness greater than our own – and been inspired, not shamed, by this experience.
The appetites for accomplishment and to be admired are not satisfied by the taste of success and admiration, merely aggravated. Like a child in need of a full meal with dairy, protein, and vegetables who gets a mere helping of cream, which tastes nice for a moment, but produces a sluggish and undernourished being. The true food for the spirit lies not inside of self, but outside of it.
We're all too small to find satisfaction within ourselves – the truth is, no one is that big of a deal.
No wonder accomplishments have always left me feeling empty-handed and discouraged in the end -- maybe not on the first day, or the first week, but there is endless striving in accomplishment. A true, restful and reassuring purpose is found when one ventures beyond the pond and into the world, a world that is starved of love. And to take up this task, not in a fearful, taxed, unwilling obligation, not for the applause of fellow human beings, but out of a passionate overflow of love. A love that loves to love. A love that is present, whatever that means. Because we will not be remembered by our checklists, but by our loved ones.
What I thought I needed was a change of schedule, focus, and time-perception. What I've begun to find is a change of spirit -- which does in fact alter my schedule, focus, and time perception... but as mere asides to something far greater.